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Do men control the key student societies at university?

High school students conducting experiment in chemistry class

In scientific subjects 72% of office-bearers were male. Photograph: Alamy

University societies have long provided like-minded students with a second family on campus, as well as skills and experience that stand us in good stead for future careers. A huge number of us will get involved in a society of some description during our time at university. But are we all benefitting equally from this involvement?

As the first female manager of Edinburgh’s student radio station in seven years, I’m acutely aware of the impact my gender has on my experience of the role. I’ve had presumptuous emails which address me as “Sir” and questions of where the “actual” manager is. My experiences as a woman in authority reflect those of women in workplaces across the country, but does the broader societies structure do the same?

With a student union boasting the most societies of any in the UK, according to EUSA president Hugh Murdoch, Edinburgh University seems like a good place to find out. Our students’ association operates no gender-auditing for society committees but does ask that office-bearers – president, treasurer and secretary – of all registered societies are listed online. By cross-checking this information with society members, I was able to put together a bigger picture of women’s representation across the 254 groups.

At first glance that picture looks good, with women making up 53% of office-bearers in line with their contribution to the wider student body. But a closer look at the data reveals the gendered nature of society management, with women running traditionally “feminine” groups, compared to their male counterparts’ roles in areas where women are widely underrepresented.

Groups run predominantly by women paint a very stereotypical picture of our interests, with charities, dance and craft societies totting up a larger number of female office-bearers than any other sector – 80%, 77% and 83% respectively.

Christina Muller, a fourth year member of the sociology society, says: “We’re brought up with the notion that intelligence is gendered; boys are expected to be academically intelligent and confident while girls are taught creative and emotional intelligence, that our purpose is as caregivers. I can see why people’s values and interests would reflect that.”

Indeed, despite a majority of female students overall, 60% of all office-bearers in academic societies are men, a figure which jumps to 72% when looking at scientific subjects specifically. Almost one third of all political groups, and 100% of all football appreciation clubs, registered no women at all on their committees.

A female secretary of a media society, who wishes to be known only by her first name Lily, says: “It worries me that I won’t have the same experience on my CV as the boys in my classes.

“Everyone talks about extra-curricular activities making you stand out from the crowd, but I’ve definitely lost elections to a less capable man in the past. We naturally see men as more authoritative. I’m not shy or quiet but I probably could look it standing next to a big tough guy.”

Office-bearer statistics represent only the “executive boards” of societies, but across bigger committees the story seems much the same. Society members I spoke to from a range of sectors reported women occupying traditionally feminine fundraising and administration roles, while their male colleagues filled management, finance and technical positions perceived as more difficult and important.

Many women described doubting their chances of gaining a “masculine” role against a male competitor, and their expectations that their abilities would be questioned should they manage to do so.

But it isn’t all bad. Anya O’Shea, chair of Edinburgh’s Labour Students, speaks for many in identifying the slow change happening on committees: “Struggles I had at the start of my term have definitely calmed down now, and I know that seeing me running the society has got more women involved.”

Still, in the age of unpaid internships and an apparently impenetrable pay gap, the politics of university societies make for sobering reading. Women make up the majority of our student population and are achieving great things inside the exam hall, yet outside of it we’re pushing them into the same – presumably pink, pretty and caring – boxes that existed long before they were even permitted to attend universities.

I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve worked my way to the top of a fantastic society in the male-dominated media industry, and my time at the station has enriched my student experience immeasurably. However, we owe this to all women and not just a select few.

Because not only does the glass ceiling still exist, but female students are bumping their heads on it before they’ve even donned a graduation gown.

Cities debate: teenagers talk London, New York, Johannesburg and Rio

JOHANNESBURG
Monky Sekwala (16), Tladi, Soweto
Lebohang Mosiuoa (15), Pimville, Soweto
Both contribute to Johannesburg’s Live magazine

LONDON
Yara Shaikh (19), Camberwell, south London
Jack Brennan (15) Gipsy Hill, south London
Aida Gugsa (18) Sydenham, south London
All contribute to south London’s Live magazine, a publication for young people written by young people and run by Livity, a Brixton-based youth marketing agency.

NEW YORK
Amosh Neupane (17), Woodside, Queens
Makayla Comas (17), East Flatbush, Brooklyn
Kafila Muhammad (16), Williamsburg, Brooklyn
All are from New York City’s Global Kids initiative, a Manhattan-based non-profit educational organisation

RIO DE JANEIRO
Michel Silva (19), Rocinha favela, southern zone of Rio
Raíssa Farias (18), Jacarepagua, in the western zone of Rio
Michel is the founder of two newspapers: Viva Rocinha and Speak Roça
Raissa is a web/graphic designer

Our home cities


Cities: teens, michel, rio
Michel Silva, 19, from Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Julia Jaroschewski/BuzzingCities/Guardian Cities

Michel (Rio)
Rocinha has been called a neighbourhood by the city of Rio de Janeiro since 1993, but I still consider it a favela. It is a cluster of houses built vertically, and many are small. My house has three rooms and I live with my parents and two sisters. The houses do not have a safe structure. Many homes need improvements to increase the safety of residents.

Yara (London)
In Camberwell, everyone just clicks; there isn’t really an issue with different ethnicities and cultures. I’ve lived around the same people for years and you are always bumping into someone you know or you know the person who owns this market stall – it kind of reminds me of EastEnders a bit so I like it. To me it’s different to most areas because it has so much community spirit.

Monky (Jo’burg)
I’ve lived in Soweto since I was a baby. I don’t really like this area, because there are no things for young people. There should be more entertainment and libraries; you have to walk a long distance to get to a library. I would like more parks too, for young people to go to. Also in my area you have to sit and wait a long time for services at the local clinic – I wish that wasn’t the case. I prefer [central] Johannesburg because it has more entertainment, many lights – it’s very busy, lots of businesses, more shops, more hotels, more tourists.

Kafila (NY)
I’ve lived in Williamsburg all my life. At first it wasn’t a really good neighbourhood, but as more people started to move in, it started to change, more organic stores appeared and more sustainable healthy food stores, which is good because I am a vegetarian. However, if I go to my friends’ neighbourhood or I go to a predominately black/African-American neighbourhood, it’s likely that I won’t see any kind of health food store. Just walking around different neighbourhoods in New York you can automatically tell the change; if you walked from Brooklyn to Manhattan, or even if you walked from a prominent wealthy neighbourhood in Brooklyn and then you walked to a poor, disadvantaged neighbourhood in Brooklyn, you can automatically tell the difference when you cross the boundary, certain apartments, the way the houses look, the stores that are there – you can tell.

Raíssa (Rio)
Things have changed here a lot: it used to be calm and quiet, but now we are almost overcrowded. We have so many people living in the same place, and that’s not really cool because there’s more violence. People from poorer cities in Brazil come to Rio and São Paulo to get more opportunities. My neighbourhood used to be really calm and the cost of living is cheap; I guess this is what made it attractive to lots of people.

Lebohang (Jo’burg)
My neighbourhood is very clean, there is a local older man who always makes sure that it’s very clean in the streets, he’s not paid by anyone he just takes a lot of pride in keeping the area nice. My neighbourhood is very safe too. Plus the houses in our neighbourhood all have air conditioning and fans to keep cool.

Yara (London)
There are a lot of old blocks of flats around my area and there are so many areas that are renovating flats; there is a lot of construction. I feel like the area doesn’t look pretty. More lights, more decoration would be nice. When I head to areas like Chelsea and Kensington and there is renovation happening to a building, they always have lovely illustrated or painted boxed covers to hid the scaffolding, but in my neighbourhood all you see is the grey structures and pipes. I feel that whoever comes up with the ideas for covering scaffolding in creative ways needs to spread the love everywhere, instead of just keeping it in Chelsea. If your area looks pretty, you feel happier and have more pride in looking after it, whereas if it looks all doom and gloom you couldn’t care less.

Aida (London)
I’ve been living in Sydenham all my life and everyone is very friendly, I know all the neighbours, I feel safe. I had a small kitchen fire last year when I burned a pot and my neighbours came to help, called the fire brigade, got it all sorted. If someone loses their keys, one of us will have a spare key, it’s very friendly. Brixton, too, looks a lot better now it’s had some special attention, its really grown and adapted through the years. There is still a sense of community but it feels safer than it was before, and some will say it’s lost its character but I think its gained more character. I think cutting the crime and cleaning up the area, it brightened up Brixton and more people come to the area and feel safe and get to experience the culture. Also Brixton market became Brixton Village, and you can go for lunch in there now or grab a coffee.

Community


Cities: teens, amosh, ny
Amosh Neupane, 17, from New York. Photograph: Guardian Cities

Amosh (NY)
There are thousands of immigrants coming to New York every day; I myself moved here a year and a half ago. It does a great job of providing opportunities, but they are not as widespread as they should be. There is a huge gap between the natives and the immigrants and it’s often the communities of colour and communities where immigrants live that are more disadvantaged, which is different to communities where white Anglo-Saxons predominately live. So that is one issue that we need to focus on, and alleviate the differences that have been plaguing communities in this city for years.

Michel (Rio)
Rocinha is a very good favela to live in. We don’t need to go into another neighbourhood to buy a product. There are five public schools, community and private nurseries. There are thousands of shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition there are two large supermarkets and an appliance and electronics store. There is shopping in Rocinha. Residents use the malls in the neighborhoods around the favela, but feel discriminated against by their lack of material wealth. The locals are friendly and there is not much prejudice among Rocinha residents. The problem is the discrimination slumdwellers suffer from middle-class neighbourhoods looking down on us. Formerly there was a prejudice towards young people; all young children were thought to be drug dealers. The reality has changed a lot; young people are more interested in leisure activities and learning.

Raíssa (Rio)
The thing I like most about living in Rio is the people. I love cariocas (inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro), we are so kind and happy.

Lebohang (Jo’burg)
I like the sense of heritage here. I speak English, but in Soweto we also speak Zulu and Sesotho. I speak Sesotho in my house with my family, and I like that the language carries on from generation to generation. I like the diversity we have in Johannesburg, and I’m interested in the city’s history. After the Mandela funeral, everyone came out into the streets to celebrate his life. I’d like to believe everyone has a photo of Mandela in their house.

Makayla (NY)
It’s very evident in New York City that there is a division between people. You probably saw in the news about the 99% v the 1%, and divisions with race. I feel that class and race have something to do with people participating in the sustainability of the city. Everyone needs to be involved in the decision making, not just one part of the community.

Amosh (NY)
I also think that things often get lost in translation as we, the non-native speakers aren’t as good at expressing ourselves with English, and so I think we need to provide more opportunities and more resources for immigrants and disadvantaged people. Like what Makayla said … 1% vs 99%. We belong in the 99% so we want good resources to be available for us to benefit from, too. Most people perceive New York as a place where people are arrogant and don’t talk to each other. So in order to make NYC more amicable, I think community involvement is vital. I want to see community meetings, not just about city planning but disability, education, and prioritising things that the community think are most important in their day-to-day lives. The more people get involved in community talks and events, and think about the community, the better the place will be to live in.

Security


Cities: teens, kafila, ny
Kafila Muhammad, 16, from New York. Photograph: Guardian Cities

Kafila (NY)
How safe I feel depends on what neighbourhood I am in. Some are worse than others – it depends on the demographics: if the community is low-income or not, where it’s located, how big the police presence is in the community. Sometimes if there is more police I feel safer, and sometimes I feel more threatened because there is also the chance of being racially profiled.

Yara (London)
Generally I feel safe here – but sometimes, especially in winter when it gets darker earlier, I do this thing where I keep my keys near my knuckles. It was a trick my mum taught me where you put the keys in between the spaces of your fingers and keep your hand in your pocket so if anyone tries to attack you out of nowhere when you punch them it will be harder.

Raíssa (Rio)
I’ve never been mugged, never seen any kind of violence, but I still feel insecure. I think the police should be an example of confidence, but we cannot trust them at all. The police are very corrupt. Sometimes people trust more in the bad guys than the police. And we have lots of cases of bribery regarding the police.

Yara (London)
Around here there are a lot of undercover police but you can see their belt and stuff. So that makes me feel like there is something bad going on, rather than making me feel safe. Also many of the community support officers, they just walk around pestering young people that don’t need to be pestered and are just innocently going about their day.

Makayla (NY)
Getting certain communities and the police to like each other is a very tough goal. I believe that a more attainable goal would be understanding on both sides and that begins with communication. There are shootings of young black males from police officers in these communities and usually the community is left wondering why the person was shot, it wasn’t necessary – often the justification is that they were threatening or wore threatening clothes, but that’s not enough justification. So I believe that the mentality of the officers is a big component of the path to understanding. I don’t think that there is anything physical that you could do with some communities. I come from those kind of communities that aren’t that safe – and if you put in more police officers we feel threatened; if you put more lights, we’re like why are there so many lights? What police and council people can do is become more in touch with the community they serve, put more amenities in the community that can get teenagers and children involved.

Aida (London)
I’ve been mugged a couple of times, so I’m always aware of my surroundings and I prefer to keep my stuff close to me no matter the area. I don’t think it makes a difference if the police are around on not. I just prefer not to attract attention to myself.

Yara (London)
I don’t feel that threatened in my area; there’s always someone drunk in the park or someone dealing drugs at the end of my street, but they wont bother you if you don’t bother them, so no eye contact and just keep walking and you’ll be fine.

Lebohang (Jo’burg)
There are boys on the street corners in my area getting into trouble, they don’t have anything to do so they just choose to commit crime. I think maybe they have problems at home and they don’t like to be at home. Also my neighbourhood is exclusively black African, there is not a lot of diversity, unlike the city as a whole – I would like it to be more multicultural. My neighbourhood is very safe, though. There is a soccer area and a netball field for young people. The houses are nice and big, with big yards – they are spread out, not bunched close together.

Michel (Rio)
I feel safe in some areas of the city, but in the northern zone of Rio, the situation is critical. If I were political, I would invest in public security policies. I was recently robbed in Rio and the thieves took my phone. The Rio de Janeiro transformations are suffering because of the new security policy. The UPPs (pacifying police unit) are expelling traffickers from the slums but they are taking refuge in other slums. So, drug trafficking is reduced but robberies have increased because of the decrease in trafficking. There is only one park near Tijuca Forest but residents do not use it; that is where Amarildo de Souza disappeared. Amarildo was a resident of Rocinha who everyone thinks was murdered by officers of the UPP. For fear, locals avoid the place.

Amosh (NY)
I think the culture of carrying weapons should be addressed. In the US you can own them, whereas you can’t in other countries in the world – and so you feel less safe because you don’t know who might have something in their back pocket to harm you. Just this morning I read about two people being shot in Indiana … This culture of carrying weapons is a big issue in our country that needs to be addressed.

Technology


Cities: teens, Lebohang, Joburg
Lebohang Mosiuoa, 15, from Johannesburg Photograph: Guardian Cities

Lebohang (Jo’burg)
Most young people in my area have mobile phones – mostly a Nokia or Blackberry. My parents are really strict so they believe you have to be a certain age before you get a mobile phone; I got a Nokia phone when I was 13. I’d love to have a computer myself one day, because I would like to study computer engineering. A lot of houses in my area have computers; the area is becoming more interested in technology now because most houses have kids my age, and we love technology. For apps, I like Facebook and What’sApp, which connects me to my friends and the rest of the world, so I can socialise a lot easier. Arranging events via Facebook and What’sApp is cheaper than calling on our phones.

Yara (London)
I am cautious of technology knowing too much about you. When they launched the iPhone 5s and 5c with fingerprint sensor recognition – at the time I had a free upgrade to get from my phone provider and could have got that one, but I didn’t want a phone that encodes my fingerprint. I feel like it’s too much, too invasive. And even with the Xbox One – apparently, because the internet signal is always on, the camera that’s part of it is on too. So I would never get that; I don’t want a camera peering into my living room.

Jack (London)
No internet equals boredom. I would be lost without technology in general; I wouldn’t be able to find the local Argos or when the next bus is approaching.

Amosh (NY)
I don’t have a phone but my favourite app which I use on my mum’s tablet is called Duolingo for learning words. I joined Twitter four months ago– it’s packed with information. I like Facebook too. The government in NYC has a lot of great apps too: to renew your medical insurance etc, it’s just one click as opposed to sending a long letter in the post which takes five or six days. I also like the Goodreads app. The book I am reading right now – Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – I stumbled on a review by a person recommending this book, so I started reading it and it’s a brilliant page-turner.

Raíssa (Rio)
Technology is easily accessible here. Everyone can get a good phone, a good notebook computer, a good TV. I got my first mobile phone when I was 16 years old. Today I think Google Maps is essential for any part of the world. I use Twitter too, to know things about the traffic.

Michel (Rio)
I work with alternative journalism; I had a news project via SMS for the residents of Rocinha. It worked very well. It would be interesting to create an app on transport and how to convert public-private spaces for recreation and cultural events.

Yara (London)
Whenever I’m based somewhere and the internet goes down, everyone starts twiddling their thumbs – it’s like nothing happens without technology any more. I was on the street recently and someone asked me for directions and immediately I went to type it into Google Maps. Now that everything is so accessible at the end of your finger, I feel like it gives young people another reason to be lazy. I always make sure that when I am with someone, I turn my phone face down because I think it’s rude otherwise.

Transport


Cities: teens, raissa, rio
Raíssa Farias, 18, from Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Guardian Cities

Raíssa (Rio)
We use buses more, I have never used a train – they are too expensive. Some buses are broken and old, and in summer we suffer with the heat inside them. It’s almost a torture – I’m not joking! Sometimes, not that frequently, we have cases of assaults and even rapes in the buses, so I don’t think they’re really secure. The buses costs 2.95 reals [74p]. This price increased a lot in the last few years, but the salaries haven’t increased at the same time. There are people who need two or three buses just to get to their job. At the end of the month, a big chunk of your pay cheque has gone on transport

Monky (Jo’burg)
I use the taxi more because it’s safer than the train, but it costs more. The train is very busy, overcrowded, you get more accidents – adults just use it for work, and it’s not safe for people my age. There are lots of pickpockets on the trains. A taxi to most places I need to go is less than 40 rand [£2.17]

Lebohang (Jo’burg)
The train is not safe, so I ride in the white taxis. When I get older I will probably still use a taxi because I have grown up with them and I feel safer in them. My parents are happier when I take the taxi; when I go anywhere, I have to text my family and let them know that I have arrived because my dad is very worried about my safety.

Amosh (NY)
There were problems with the transportation here after hurricane Sandy. The transportation was down for 10 days and some train stations are still suffering, they are still being renovated. So I guess since the transportation system and subways were established over 100 years ago, we need to update what we have and build more climate-resilient infrastructure in our city.

Kafila (NY)
I think that transportation in NYC is amazing because we don’t have to have a car; you can get anywhere on a bike or the subway or buses, or even walking because of the bridges. In my neighbourhood we have more bike lanes now, and the new CitiBikes are great too. I use so many apps daily to navigate the city – Hopstop [a transit directions app] is amazing if you want to get anywhere in NYC and you need a shortcut.

Aida (London)
I love my app to tell me when then bus is coming – it’s called Bus Countdown. It’s so helpful, so I don’t have to stand in the cold for too long. Buses are my main form of transport from outside my house, so I use this app a lot. I wish there was an underground service, though, I really do. I live on a hill and it’s really inconvenient. Also I wish they would extend the Boris Bikes scheme to the whole of London; it would give everyone opportunities to cycle more – what about the rest of us? Better bike lanes would be good too.

Yara (London)
I use Transport for London’s journey planner website to track if the trains are working. For travel, I use the map that’s embedded in my phone – I type in the postcode or name and just follow the line. It’s really convenient because I get lost a lot, my sense of direction is disgusting.

Leisure


Cities: teens, brixton, london
Aida Gugsa, Jack Brennan and Yara Shaikh (L-R), near the Live magazine offices in Brixton, south London. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian


Jack (London)
The council could do a lot more around my area because there are not a lot of big spaces; there’s one big park but nothing happens there because it’s a dog park. There is a youth club that does art activities for ages 7 up to 15, so it’s limited for my age group. I want more places to hang out; if I do hang out it’s on the street, there’s no indoor shelter other than each other’s houses, there is not a lot that the council is providing. There are no cafes around my area really, and it’s limited for shops, bakeries and restaurants.

Michel (Rio)
The Rocinha slum is rich in art and exhibitions. There are many dance and music shows in people’s houses over holidays; most are funk music, sometimes it’s samba or forró [from north-eastern Brazil]. But funk is the favourite musical rhythm of both young people and adults. The locals aren’t interested in opera. Recently, the government built a large library, which has space for theatre and other activities. Many residents do not use the space because they think they need to pay to enter.

Amosh (NY)
Extracurricular activities are in short supply here. We don’t have enough funding for field trips and we don’t get to do internships, which is sad because they help students get hands-on experience in their preferred careers. We need more community-based initiatives like Global Kids to empower young people.

Makayla (NY)
The extracurricular activities which students get access to all depend on what school you go to, resources and funding, and the student’s economic background. It’s very limiting, and can mean little access to activities that can advance you and get you interested in more than what’s around in your neighbourhood.

Aida (London)
There used to be more youth clubs but they got shut down after the Tory government got in. I’d like to see more spaces for young people that include a range of ages, as they have different needs. You’ve got teenagers who are hyper and excited, and 21-year-olds trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. You could have one building and one place for everyone to hang around in, but it could be versatile for all ages, with different floors and activities.

Lebohang (Jo’burg)
In my area, there’s a sports complex and a dance academy. I’d like a nearer swimming pool – the one we have is far away, but it’s cheap and accessible for young people to use, which is great. We have lots of parks here so we don’t get bored; we buy snacks and just hang out in the park.

Yara (London)
In my area there isn’t a lot going on, from art to music to community events. Every Saturday, there’s an NHS van which comes and tests blood pressure levels for free. It’s cool but that applies to the older generation more. There are farmers’ markets too, but they are for older people. So we just head to the cinema or the 02 Arena; culturally, my area doesn’t offer a lot.

Raíssa (Rio)
We have lots of cultural events – that’s something I can’t complain about. There’s always events to do with art, music, dance, sports, and sometimes it comes free or really cheap.

Monky (Jo’burg)

There are no libraries nearby and no centres for career guidance and support for those kids who have dropped out of the education system. The kids who stay in the street don’t have guidance – but they need it the most. Even though they quit school, it doesn’t mean they don’t need support or education.

What’s missing?


Cities: teens, monky, joburg
Monky Sekwala, 16, from Johannesburg. Photograph: Guardian Cities

Monky (Jo’burg)
I would build a library, because right now we have to walk a long way for the library and some entertainment. I would also build parks for kids to play so they don’t play on the street.

Raíssa (Rio)
If I was mayor of my city, I would solve some questions about education. Recently, Rio went through a period of change, when the population tried to solve some things with our government. But the education is still in trouble. We had lots of riots about the price of the buses, about the public education. For the first time in a long period, the teachers went on a strike that lasted for months. The government made some agreements to calm the citizens, but I think nothing is really solved. The thing I like least [about Rio] is the public education. It’s a part of my city which is getting more and more forgotten. The public education is free, but it’s horrible. Many schools don’t have enough teachers and the classes are too crowded. If you want your children to have a good education, you have to pay.

Michel (Rio)
I want a city with fewer cars and better public transport services. Less trash on the floor, better sanitation in the slums, the demilitarisation of culture in the slums, more leisure options, less pollution on beaches and less dishonesty among top politicians. I do not like the lack of sanitation in Rocinha. Sanitation in hundreds of slums in Rio de Janeiro has been a big problem since the 50s. In Rocinha, the federal government plans to build a cable car to equal the Complexo do Alemão cable car. But the residents of Rocinha are mobilised against the chairlift. They would prefer sanitation.

Lebohang (Jo’burg)
Some of the parts of South Africa are not safe – like when you walk into an area where the houses are close to each other, and there are taller buildings with poorer people in, you can tell the difference. When I’m in those areas I don’t feel very safe. The difference between those areas and my area is very visible, those areas are dirty, with rubbish on the floor, papers everywhere and plastic bottles. I think it will only change if the people in those areas take care of it more but the local government could help. Some of the people who live there think the government doesn’t care about them any more, because when they look at their habitat, they see all the dirtiness and they feel like they have been left with no care.

Aida (London)
All areas should be treated the same by councils and given the same attention and resources. You can’t just spruce up one area and not the other. One example of that is street cleaning; when it’s snowing, my area is just left covered in snow, but when I go to other area like Chelsea, it’s cleaner. It feels like more affluent areas get special treatment. Don’t get me wrong, the streets do get cleaned, the rubbish is collected. But we still have potholes that need to be sorted and buildings that need to be rebuilt or refurbished. To me, Brixton is a good example of vast improvement. Back in the day, people didn’t feel safe or comfortable there; now look at it, all cleaned up and taken care of, and it’s like a hipsters’ hotspot. If we could do that to most of London, that would be fantastic. London is a beautiful city. Ideally, I would prefer to see less homelessness, more places to inspire young people to grow and find paths for their futures, a better education system that helped everyone and gave equal opportunities and resources to school in different boroughs. I’d like better work experience opportunities, centres which can teach people how to use money wisely, and more outdoor activities for all ages.

Yara (London)
I would like the area to be cleaned up and more maintained, with less people on street corners doing bad stuff. I came back from Oxford Street earlier today into my area, and it’s so different. The difference in buildings tells you exactly where you are – in my area the drains are busted, the paintwork is peeling, but in west London everything is clean, the buildings are white marble. My area is dirty. Then you stop and think, well, obviously drug dealers are going to be dealing here because people aren’t about and there is no maintenance so they think it’s OK for them to do that here. There’s grey brickwork in my area, not white marble; the bricks have damp and mould around them because the drains are busted. There’s bins everywhere, overflowing.

The environment


Cities: teens, makayla, ny
Makayla Comas, 17, from New York. Photograph: Guardian Cities

Makayla (NY)
Make it popular. News about Brad Pitt and other celebrities is perpetuated in the media every day, but you don’t see an article on climate change or the sea level rising every day, so maybe if it was more popular and in your face, there would be more community involvement. We’re a very creative generation and we find different ways to interact with people through social media, music and TV, so if the eco message was channelled through these forms, people would take note.

Michel (Rio)
The Rocinha slum is surrounded by forest of Tijuca – the largest urban forest in the world. The environment is very important; in Rio, the temperatures are unbearable, far too hot. I would like to create awareness programmes about how to safely recycle or dispose of plastic bottles, cooking oil, tyres and others. The gathering trash in Rocinha has huge negative effects and takes away from the greatness of the area.

Raíssa (Rio)
My neighbourhood is one of the places that still has lots of trees. But nobody cares about recycling, people are not really educated for that. Some people use bikes, but there are a lot of cars. I really care about the environment – but everything about the environment and the danger of not taking care of it doesn’t feel like a necessity, so nobody cares at all. Not only the children disregard it, but the adults too.

Amosh (NY)
In our society, people tend to forget if something has not been talked about for a long time. Climate resilient infrastructure, global warming and the endless effect on our city is something we need to talk about – we need to hold symposiums and conferences, get more community involvement. For example, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but I would have never been interested in magic and Hogwarts had I not read the books. So I think we need to incorporate environmental issues into books, pop songs and movies to get more youth involved, because those are the things we are into.

Jack (London)
Yeah, I feel a responsibility. I know what my family before saw and experienced is different to me; if I saw a movie about the damaging effects of what we are doing to the Earth and how that will eventually affect us, I would be more aware. It would affect me to create changes.

Kafila (NY)
I think it starts with just talking to one person, then it spreads. I remember over the summer, there was a competition for global awareness through the internet. People were encouraged to be more sustainable and there were different competitions and prizes; once you completed the challenges, you got a ticket to a concert with John Mayer, Alicia Keys and other great artists . So I think that if there is a reward for changing your lifestyle, people would get involved and things could change. Also, one of my favourite shows is Sherlock, so if Benedict Cumberbatch made a public announcement about environmental issues, people who love the show would be interested in that.

Makayla (NY)
In New York, there’s a lack of communication between the people who have connections to industry, information, career opportunities, etc, and the people who don’t have them. Those who don’t have those connections, they have to desperately search for the information they need. When I was trying to get involved in the environmental movement, I didn’t have any connections to it, so I had to search and struggle to find something. Then finally Global Kids came to my school and said they had a programme for environmentalism. Without that, I would have been at a loss – there was nothing in my local area.

Yara (London)
It depends what you grow up around. When I was in school, in science class we always talked about global warming and it was always something that was brought to my attention. But I guess in everyday life you don’t really stop and think, is what I am doing benefiting the planet? I would like to see it implemented into law, so in your day-to-day endeavours it’s something that you have to do – made part of your daily habits. In supermarkets at the moment you are encouraged to bring your own bags, but there’s no law about it, so it’s hard to create change – all bags should be recyclable and we should charge for plastic bags. Social media campaigns only help temporarily; we need to enforce it more so it becomes force of habit.

Aida (London)
I think the council should do more to force good habits and not just give people the option to recycle. It should be mandatory.

Kafila (NY)
If you look at the demographics of different neighbourhoods here, you’ll see the resources they have are different – the community gardens, the kinds of stores, the carbon emissions that are put out. If you go to a store in a less affluent neighbourhood, generally with more people of colour, it’s hard to find food that is organic, or any kind of healthy, sustainable food – and if it is stocked at all, the produce is often overgrown, full of pesticides, and doesn’t look healthy. Instead you will see mostly liquor stores, fast-food restaurants and things that don’t contribute positively to the environment. So sometimes different communities are disadvantaged not only because of the racial boundaries but also because of their financial boundaries. If there was equality, or at least some kind of balance, more people would be able to get involved with environmentalism and make more healthy, sustainable life choices.

Amosh (NY)
I would love to see more green roofs and parks in the city, like the High Line. I would love to see the river and the water sources around the city kept clean. I would love to see more bike lanes, more public transport utilised rather than vehicles, and more green buildings.

Makayla (NY)
There are opportunities for solar panels, and hydroelectricity too. NYC is a vulnerable place with climate change and the sea levels rising. I feel there could be more initiatives to protect the island. But there’s still a big fear around alternative energies here; oil is what America has stuck to since forever, and going into something so unfamiliar as alternative energy – it confuses people. Also, you have to take into account the amount of money that oil companies make. Money and unfamiliarity have caused the taboo and bad stigma associated with alternative energy. As young people, we are very interested in environmentalism, but it’s hard to connect others who are not so interested, or not so aware. It’s hard to get people to see.

Big Garden Birdwatch: spend an hour with the birds this weekend

Redwing on branch of tree
The Big Garden Birdwatch helps ecologists monitor changing avian trends in our gardens Photo: Alamy

Each year, for one hour during the third weekend of January, I turn my living
room curtains into a makeshift hide and sit behind them counting birds in my
tiny city garden. Every count is different: one year the hour was dominated
by an angry male blackbird who attacked a female whenever she tried to eat
the apples I’d left for them; another year a noisy charm of goldfinches ate
me out of niger and sunflower seed, and there was the time when all I saw
were feral pigeons. This weekend I expect the sum total of my count to be
two blue tits and a robin, which have been coming to the garden every day
for the last few weeks to fight over the feeders. No other bird gets a look
in.

The birdwatch is a nice way to spend an hour, and it helps ecologists monitor
changing avian trends in our gardens. Unlike nature reserves and public
property, ecologists can’t simply walk into gardens to record wildlife
themselves – they rely on us gardeners to give them a helping hand. And we
do. Now in its 35th year, RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch (BGBW) attracts around
half a million people every January. They not only help monitor changing
bird trends, but also get a little closer to the wildlife outside their back
door.

Since its inception, BGBW results have mirrored national statistics, most
recently confirming that house sparrow numbers are in freefall. Sightings
have dropped by 63 per cent since the first count in 1979, while numbers of
starlings are down by 82 per cent. Song thrushes are now seen in 59 per cent
fewer gardens.

Reasons for these declines are many and varied. House sparrows are thought to
be suffering from changes in agricultural practices, resulting in a lack of
insect food for their young and a general destruction of habitat. (House
sparrows tend to stick to the same area, so if their habitat is destroyed
then local populations are more likely to die out than simply move on.) It’s
not known why starlings are declining so rapidly, but it might be something
to do with a fall in the number of soil invertebrates, such as worms and
leatherjackets, in agricultural areas, which these birds rely on heavily for
food.

Song thrushes are thought to have fallen victim to a degradation of insect
food and nesting habitat, such as hedgerows. The knock-on effects are felt
in our gardens, but we can also use our gardens to help reverse the downward
trends of these threatened species.

European visitors

It’s not all bad news. Sightings of coal tits, long-tailed tits and blackbirds
are increasing. And there’s a new bird on the block – the blackcap. Usually
a summer resident which nests in large gardens but migrates to Iberia in
autumn, the blackcap has recently been turning up at British bird feeders in
winter. Only, they’re not the same blackcaps we see in summer; these birds
have travelled here from Europe. Like “British” blackcaps, they
also mostly head to Iberia, but a splinter group has started to come to
Britain instead, where they feast on the peanuts and fat balls in our
feeders. There are many advantages of spending winter in Britain over
Iberia: the birds have a guaranteed source of food and a comparatively short
return journey to their spring breeding grounds. Because they arrive home
sooner than the Iberian set, they have the pick of the best nesting sites,
and are also probably in much better physical condition to breed.

The success of these new winter migrants means more and more of them are
coming over and turning up at our bird feeders. Surely it’s only a matter of
time before they enter the top 20 of the BGBW.

So how do you spot a blackcap at your bird table? Roughly green-grey in
colour, the male has a black “cap” and the female has a
chestnut-coloured one. They’re also quite aggressive, so are hard to miss.
The RSPB’s Richard Bashford explains that, like robins, blackcaps “establish
garden territories in winter, so they are likely to be aggressive towards
other birds at feeding stations because they consider them to be their own”.

The big count

What if there are no birds to count? Like many gardens in Britain, it took a
long time for any birds to show up in mine this winter. Such has been the
concern among bird lovers that the RSPB had to put out a press release to
explain what was going on. The answer was simple: the mild weather meant
birds could find food in the wild – they didn’t need us. “Birds
tend to be pushed into gardens the harder the weather is,” says
Bashford, “so the milder the weather, the fewer birds you will see in
your garden.”

This doesn’t bode well for the Big Garden Birdwatch, as finches and winter
migrants such as redwings and fieldfares are less likely to turn up.
However, it’s still worth taking part. “Even if the weather is mild and
there are fewer birds in your garden on the day of the count, please do
still submit your results,” urges Bashford.

These low sightings can still be compared to those of other mild winters,
helping track national population trends.

What to feed birds

Regardless of the weather, birds will soon be entering nesting season and need
to be in good condition to breed. Give them nutrient-rich sunflower and
niger seed, peanuts, halved apples, mealworms, suet products and grated
cheese.

Continue to feed them after they have started nesting, as while they gather
natural food for their young they will still need to feed themselves. Hulled
sunflower hearts will save them time and energy, as they won’t have to
remove the husk.

Last year many garden birds failed to raise young successfully. Owing to the
cold, wet spring, there were fewer insects to forage. If conditions turn
bad, leave a dish of live mealworms for birds, which they may choose to feed
to their young as an alternative.

Avoid leaving out whole peanuts, which birds may feed to their young if
natural sources of food are hard to find. These can choke chicks. Only put
peanuts out if you have a fine mesh feeder, or are prepared to grind them
into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Don’t forget ground-feeding birds such as blackbirds, robins and thrushes.
Halved apples and mealworms are ideal for them.

Keep bird baths topped up. Birds drink from bird baths but also use the water
to preen their feathers – helping them to insulate their bodies more
efficiently and fly faster, potentially making them better able to fly from
predators as well as travel to and from the nest more quickly.

To take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, simply spend an hour recording
the highest number of each bird species seen in your garden or local park at
any one time. Visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/
for more details.

Kate Bradbury is the author of The Wildlife Gardener (Kyle Books, £14.99)

Read more: How to help our most threatened garden
birds

Read more: Top 10 places to go birdwatching in
winter

SGD garden design awards 2014: the winners

The Grand Award, People’s Choice Award and Large Residential Garden Award

Winner: Andrew Wilson FSGD

Project: Hertfordshire Garden

What the judges said: “A contemporary design has been layered with the
historic landscape to create an exciting and serene composition. The whole
garden is beautifully done and gives a feeling of space and cohesion.
Introduced, native and naturalised species have been combined to develop
exciting and challenging planting combinations which are displayed in a wide
variety of contexts from fantastic borders to ecologically-driven wetlands.
Architectural elements such as screens, hard landscape terraces and the
entrance driveway have been designed with great skill and to be in scale
with the house and surrounding landscape. It is a garden full of surprises.”

For further information about The SGD Awards, visit sgdawards.com

Picture: Clive Nichols

Jewish brothers perform capoeira in Jerusalem

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The ultra-orthodox Hayat brothers perform capoeira in Jerusalem – a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. The brothers work to promote the martial art in the ultra-orthodox community in Israel



Tough Guy 2014 – in pictures

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The annual Tough Guy race takes place in Perton, near Wolverhampton, UK. Competitors must make their way across mud, fire and water, and a third of starters usually fail to finish



Thorny problems: can I recycle corks in the garden?

Cacti flourish in the Botanical Gardens, Munich, but they can be trickier to grow in a garden
Cacti flourish in the Botanical Gardens, Munich, but they can be trickier to grow in a garden 

Life after cacti

An elderly neighbour was throwing away some unhappy and shrivelled cacti in
an attractive old terracotta container about 16in (40cm) in diameter but
only 4in (10cm) deep – more like a big serving dish than a plant pot. Having
“rescued” it, can you suggest something for my garden that would thrive in
such a shallow vessel? I don’t like cacti and I am not much of a gardener.

Peter Felbridge, via email

Your rescued pot sounds rather lovely. When you evict the scruffy squatters
(and I don’t blame you – I would too) along with the ancient compost they
have been “growing” in, you may well find that the pot has several large
drainage holes, making it suitable for growing alpines outside. Give it a
good wash and scrub and wait until spring: then you will have a little
project.

Partially block the holes with pebbles so that your new compost (a mixture of
John Innes no 2 with about 25 per cent added horticultural grit), drains but
does not fall through them too readily. Then buy two or three contrasting
squat, little, hardy outdoor succulents called houseleeks (Sempervivums).

These low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants consist of neat rosettes of
fleshy leaves that occasionally throw up rather other-worldly flowers. Each
rosette will gradually expand via little offsets and the trio will between
them eventually cover and fill the pot. Alternatives might be little alpine
sedums or saxifrages, but they are needier and less tidy.

Press your new boys gently but firmly into the compost, adding a layer of grit
to the top of the compost around their “shoulders” to ensure optimum
drainage. Water the pot once to settle it and then find a sunny place for
it, preferably standing it on some pot feet. Then more or less forget it
apart from in deepest winter when you should give it some overhead shelter
from the worst wet.

Annual grooming – which consists of the removal of rosettes that have flowered
and died and topping up the gravel – is all that will be required, probably
for several years.

Garden tidy bag

In a recent picture of you on this page you were carrying a large green bag
over your shoulder. Could you please let me know where I can buy one
similar? I used to have one but can no longer find one like it. Thank you.

Guy MacNaughton, via email

The bag is part of a range made by a company called Bosmere, better known
perhaps for their garden furniture/barbecue covers (bosmere.com).
Use the contact number given to find a local stockist. The Jumbo (which I
use) seems to be on special offer on Amazon. I have used these bags and also
a tough flat sheet with handles at each corner for years and couldn’t do
without at least two bags on the go. Even when really old and holey in the
bottom (because they do tend to get dragged around a bit) they make useful
receptacles for composting leaves, shoved behind evergreen shrubs out of
sight.

Christmas hangover?

Jenny Blair asks if I have any ideas how a collection of bottle corks (some of
them plastic) can be “recycled” in the garden. She was at pains to explain,
in her email, that they were not all accumulated from the Christmas/New Year
we have just had, but have gradually been building up over the years. Two
uses come to mind: I have seen them used as not-unattractive
moisture-retaining mulch on the top of a large flower pot. I suppose you
could also use them at the bottom of big pots as a drainage layer, where
once “crocks” were de rigueur.

Jenny asks, furthermore, if there is any reason why she should not grow herbs
in an old wooden wine box? None that I can see, although the construction of
traditional wine boxes is rather primitive (they are simply nailed
together), and they are made of very-low-grade thin wood, so even if they
are treated with a plant friendly preservative (Eco Wood Treatment from
Harrod Horticultural – harrodhorticultural.com),
have their nails replaced with brass screws, drainage holes made and a
couple of struts put on their base to strengthen them and provide “feet”,
they wouldn’t last more than a year or so. A nice idea though – one I might
try myself.

Read more: Colourful plants to lift the
winter gloom

Read more: Helen Yemm: a gardening glance back, and
looking forwards to 2014

Charlotte Church goes off-grid in Iceland

I am sat deep under the ground in a 2,000-year-old lava tube, a cave-like tunnel, in total darkness. If you stay down here long enough, I am told by our guide, Oskar, your eyes adjust to the pitch black and you are eventually able to see your hand in front of your face.

This is the penultimate stop on a trip that has seen my partner, JP, and I disconnect from all our usual technological devices in an attempt to become entirely unplugged from 21st-century life. I’m always trying to do this at home, but in my line of work, and with two small children, it’s virtually impossible. Sitting here in complete silence, it feels as though the rest of the Earth has slipped away, leaving nothing but a dialogue between my pumping blood and the sound of water trickling down the walls. Iceland is all about the water.

Flying into Keflavik airport, the sea beneath us was Orkney blue and choppy as hell. Clouds rolled before us in cirriform furrows, then slowly gave way to distant tabletop mountains, dripping with pink and gold. It looked like Val-bleedin’-halla. On our descent, we appeared to be landing on Mars. It is no surprise that Iceland has attracted sci-fi film-makers in the last few years: those volcanic plains look like the ancient, battle-scarred skin of a basilisk.

We arrived in Reykjavik just in time for the Iceland Airwaves festival, and headed out to dinner before catching some bands (hot tips: Baby In Vain and Nolo). Lækjarbrekka is a traditional Icelandic restaurant where JP managed to chow down puffin (“Pretty damned good”), minke whale (“Ten times better than the best steak”), wind-dried fish (“kinda chewy”) and fermented shark (“It smells of death and tastes like the world’s worst blue cheese, aged in a tramp’s pants, then marinated in a mixture of goat urine and Listerine”). He hopes one day to get the taste out of his mouth. I had lamb steak with langoustines, both meats tasting like they were in HD.


Charlotte prepares to take the plunge.
Charlotte prepares to take the plunge. Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson

Reykjavik doesn’t feel like a city, more like a really big village. Buildings are rarely higher than two storeys, allowing landmarks and those incredible tabletops to be visible from almost everywhere. Despite there being a major international festival in town, at no point did it feel rammed with tourists. There is a serenity and calm that runs through its streets. Oskar told us that McDonald’s had set up restaurants across Iceland, but nobody went to them, so they upped and left. There is no Tesco or Walmart. In fact, the only recognisable brand name on what few billboards there were was Coca-Cola with its “Get your mate’s/boyfriend’s/dog’s name on a bottle” promotion, except all those names had “Đ”s or “Æ”s in them. We stayed at the Grand hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, but a tad corporate for my taste.

After a couple of days hipstering it up at Airwaves, we felt ready to leave town and truly disconnect from modern life. The road was totally empty as we drove away from Reykjavik, the landscape ghostly. There is a certain kind of light in Iceland that I have never experienced anywhere else. It’s as though twilight is about to descend. It felt magical.

We were heading east to the Silfra fissure in the Thingvellir national park, where we were going to go diving (temperature -2C), though first we had to stuff our chilly limbs into blubber suits, and then into dry suits. The end result was that I looked like a smooshed-up cabbage patch doll. The fissure is a popular diving site because you are literally swimming between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It’s like an upturned derelict cathedral, devoid of life, save for the mossy plants. You feel as though you’re drifting towards the centre of the Earth. This was some serious Jules Verne shit. The water was crystal-clear and drinkable, so it was basically like swimming in Evian. You could feel the cold, but it was totally bearable. After 40 minutes we emerged, and were then offered the chance to cliff-jump back in. I had no stomach for a 30ft drop, but there was no stopping JP, whose one regret was that he didn’t jump twice. We got back out of our suits, bone-dry, and headed off to Geysir in southwestern Iceland.


Scuba-diving (in sub-zero temperatures) in the Thingvellir national park.
Scuba-diving (in sub-zero temperatures) in the Thingvellir national park. Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson

Geysir, or the GG (Great Geysir as it’s sometimes known), is no longer erupting. He has too much weight above him, according to Oskar. Oskar called all mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, caves and geysers “he”, and the sun, sea and plants “she”, so from now on so will I. Right next to Geysir is the geyser Strokkur (meaning butter churn). Every five to 10 minutes, the boiling sulphurous waters of Strokkur will start to rise into a huge bullfrog bubble, and then proceed to erupt a good 20ft into the air.

There were plenty of tourists present while we were there, but unlike the UK, where there would have been health-and-safety protocols everywhere, there was just a rather ancient-looking donation box to which everyone contributed.

A mile down the road is what Oskar called a service station, and while you couldn’t get a £5 scotch egg or a 50 Shades Of Grey knock-off, you could buy a cheap, refillable bowl of what was worryingly called “meat soup”, but turned out to be an awesome lamb stew that nicely combated the cold. A couple of bowls each and we were ready to take off again. Oskar suggested we drive off-road a bit, which sounded cool, so we ventured out to Langjökull glacier and proceeded to drive up it, which is as hard as it sounds and doesn’t really work. Still giddy fun, though.

At the Hotel Rangá, we signed a ”wake-up-call-if-the-Northern-Lights-kick-off” sheet and got our heads down early. We’d been allocated the Africa suite, which was brilliantly bonkers, furnished with two djembes (just in case you fancied an unscheduled drum circle), a very real zebra pelt on the wall and a book of Leni Riefenstahl‘s African photographs, besides a whole load of spears and the like.


charlotte church in iceland
‘We started to climb, each step getting windier and colder. And I started to wonder why I hadn’t plumped for the Maldives.’ Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson

The bath water smelled of sulphur, and the morning chill meant it couldn’t get too hot, so instead we just layered up and, after a hearty breakfast, hit the road again. The first destination on the agenda was Sólheimajökull, where we would be hiking up the glacier. With crampons firmly attached and ice picks in hand, we started to climb, each step getting windier and colder. About 10 minutes in, I started to wonder why I hadn’t plumped for the Maldives. My self-pity was soon banished, though, as Oskar began to fill us in on the geography of our surroundings. Out to the east, Eyjafjallajökull (the culprit behind the 2010 eruption) sat like an indignant toad on the landscape. The ash from the eruption (which Oskar says has driven up tourism) lay thinly on the glacier, and I could carry on about that and how long it takes for moss to grow on it for another few paragraphs, but I fear that information is only really interesting when you’re standing there. Needless to say, you don’t need a PhD in geology to be awestruck by the raw power, the volatility, the majesty.

A storm was coming in from the east. What was yesterday a clear view to the horizon was now grout-grey and swirling. In Iceland, the weather can change like that (clicks fingers). The forecast is quite often entirely wrong. That is hardly surprising for an island that emerged, lonesome, between the north Atlantic and Arctic oceans, out of lava, a mere 16m years ago. It can only be imagined how hard life was for Icelanders before cars, the harnessing of geothermal energy, and the building of the greenhouses that are now scattered across the landscape. It is no wonder they had to live off haddock they hung out in the wind, and bits of poisonous killer shark they buried in the sand.

We came down off the glacier and after a bit of super Jeep on the beach (a derelict US army supply plane lies on it from the days when they used Iceland as a base), we turned away from the storm, and found our way to the most beautiful place we visited on our trip: órsmörk (literally Thor’s valley) is a frost-coated fairytale that in summer becomes an alpine vision of serenity. This is what the unique folklore is built upon. How could you not envision trolls and elves making a habitat in this wild and bewitching terrain? Outside órsmörk was an ice cave in glittering golden blue. It was psychedelic in the extreme.


Charlotte Church in Iceland
Photograph: Bragi Þór Jósefsson

Back at Hotel Rangá, we were met by Frederik, the owner, an affable eccentric who had just returned from an awards ceremony in London where the hotel had won Best Sustainable Hotel in Europe, among a cluster of other prizes. The three of us spent a hilarious evening over a beautiful and boozy meal of reindeer carpaccio, white chocolate and champagne salmon, and more of those amazing langoustines, rounded off with shots of Birkir and Björk. They are the male and female names for birch, the only tree believed to be actually indigenous to Iceland. Birkir, a schnapps, was hefty and tasted of pine, whereas Björk, a liqueur, was lighter and sweeter, like sloe gin but with a distinctive earl grey flavour. We went to bed a little woozy.

It wouldn’t surprise me if there was no word for hangover in Icelandic. The air hits you in the morning and clears it all out. Downstairs, Frederik insisted we have a shot of cognac with him after breakfast (an Icelandic horse-riding tradition, apparently), and with that we bid a sad farewell to Hotel Rangá and turned back to the west in search of the lava tunnel. Mining helmets on, we descended until we reached the deepest part of the lava tube and it was lights-off time.

After that, we had one last stop. Between Reykjavik and Keflavik is the Blue Lagoon, the sole tourist trap on our journey. A bizarre, 4ft-deep crater, artificially pumped full of milky, blue water, it was mainly populated by Brits and Japanese wearing armbands – I didn’t manage to find out why. While you can buy a beer at the bar in the middle of the 38C water, and that water is high in minerals that are good for your skin, it was far too expensive for what it was (standard entry is around £30, and a beer about £5). Plus, after being spoilt by all of the genuine natural wonders that Iceland has to offer, the view of the powerw station, from which the water we were in was overflow, failed to impress.

Having experienced cutting ourselves off from the excesses of modern living, and having basked in nature’s glory, we said goodbye to our new friend Oskar at the airport and prepared to return to the regular stresses of 21st-century life. The only disappointment of the trip was missing out on seeing the aurora borealis. There is no saying when she might decide to come out, but the idea of sitting in a hot tub at midnight watching photons smashing apart on the Earth’s atmosphere is just one reason I’ll be going back to Iceland.

• The trip was provided by Iceland specialists Discover the World. A four-night tailor-made trip, including Icelandair return flights from London, Manchester or Glasgow, two nights at Grand Hotel Reykjavik (B&B), two nights at Hotel Rangá (B&B) and four days’ car hire, costs from £680pp. Excursions are extra and cost from £228pp for the Golden Circle and Silfra snorkelling experience (with pick-up from Reykjavik); £111pp for a south shore super Jeep adventure and £78pp for ice climbing

Whisky: a new taste for Burns Night celebrations

Whisky column 1 25 Jan 2014

If you’re looking for a special bottle to celebrate Burns Night tonight, chances are you’re looking for a single malt. But you might get yourself an equally interesting dram if you splashed out on a single-grain whisky.

Grain whisky is, of course, the basis of all blends, and as such not traditionally given much respect. It differs from malt in that it can be made from grains other than barley, and is made in a continuous still, which results in a lighter, sweeter and, in most cases, blander spirit.

Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest in grain whisky, kickstarted by the innovative Compass Box Whisky Company, whose fragrant, honeyed, non chill-filtered Hedonism (£53.95, online from thewhiskyexchange.com; 43% abv) proved that grain whiskies could have real character.

“We have some fanatics who can’t wait for the new grain releases, especially single-grain whiskies from closed distilleries, which have become eminently collectible but still haven’t hit the heights of rare malt prices,” says Joe McGirr of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which features up to 20 different grain “expressions” at any one time in its London and Edinburgh tasting rooms. “Distilleries have been realising they don’t have enough to meet demand,” McGirr adds.

I tried some of the society’s bottlings from five different grain distilleries, which varied fascinatingly, the most appealing being G1.9 (£54.70 to members; 62.8% abv), a lively 21-year-old from the North British distillery, of which only 209 bottles were made. If you join the SMWS, which seems a good move for any whisky lover (membership costs £122), you can either sample its most recent releases at the members’ rooms or order them to drink at home.

Berry Bros whisky

The SMWS is not the only institution to do its own bottling. St James’s wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd also bottles its own. I was blown away by a 1988 cask of Berrys’ Invergordon Single Grain Whisky (46% abv) in which I could find a myriad complex flavours from light muscovado sugar to mace. At £70, it’s clearly very much a special-occasion purchase, but you can pick up the 2000 for a comparatively reasonable £36.

Obviously none of these options is readily available, so what should you buy for tonight from the high street? Most supermarkets have offers on the household names, but the best-value deal I found was, surprisingly, from Lidl: a warming, spicy, five-year-old blended malt called Glen Orchy for just £13.49. Ironically, that’s cheaper even than a grain.

Outdoor life, suburban gardening, and county walks around Leicestershire.